U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann’s decision to leave Congress marks a changing guard in the anti-tax Tea Party movement as it girds for its next battle later this year over an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling.
Bachmann’s announcement yesterday that she won’t run again after four terms follows the departure of former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a Republican who left last year to head the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, which advocates limited government. The two lawmakers had been regarded as the faces of the Tea Party’s rebellion in the House and Senate.
Bachmann, a 2012 presidential hopeful, DeMint, and former Representative Allen West of Florida, who clashed with House Speaker John Boehner and lost his election last year, are being supplanted by leaders such as freshman Senator Ted Cruz of Texas as Republicans regroup after losing showdowns with President Barack Obama over taxes and spending.
“You need to look at this as part of a trend instead of a separate event,” said Stan Collender, a former Democratic congressional budget analyst who once briefed the House Tea Party Caucus on the debt limit at Bachmann’s invitation.
“As the deficit’s getting better and the economy is improving, the influence of the Tea Party and the anger that drove it is waning,” said Collender.
Congress has been focused on revising U.S. immigration and gun laws, issues the Tea Party hasn’t championed. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said the effective deadline to raise the nation’s borrowing limit won’t be until at least September.
With that issue posing the next test of how much strength the movement retains, Ron Bonjean, a former aide to Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, said the Tea Party is waiting in the wings.
“The challenge right now is there is no central fight for the Tea Party until Congress starts addressing once again the debt ceiling,” said Bonjean.
Bachmann, 57, has been out of the national spotlight following her failed presidential primary run. Instead, she engaged in confrontations with party leaders as part of a group of Republicans who tried in vain to prevent a tax increase this year.
Like DeMint, Bachmann may anticipate she will wield more power outside of Congress, said Bonjean.
“Washington has not heard the last of Bachmann, she’s going to be around,” said Bonjean.
Her announcement came amid an ethics inquiry. The Office of Congressional Ethics is looking into alleged campaign-finance violations, the Daily Beast reported in March. A lawyer for Bachmann told the Washington Post that month that she was cooperating with the probe and wasn’t presented with any allegations of personal wrongdoing.
Bachmann dropped out of her party’s presidential primaries last year after a sixth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. In her video, she said eight years was long enough to serve a congressional district, though she had raised $678,666 for the 2014 campaign in the first three months of 2013.
Among the House’s most prolific fundraisers, Bachmann had $1.9 million in the bank as of March 31. She had started running a campaign TV ad in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, spending $85,000 to tout her work against Obama’s health-care law.
She said her decision to step aside wasn’t related to ethics inquiries into her presidential campaign and its staff.
For Republicans, her retirement “may be a blessing,” said Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “You get a fresh candidate without baggage.”
Bachmann’s district is the most Republican-leaning in Minnesota. While Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney lost the state to Obama by almost 8 percentage points in November, he carried Bachmann’s congressional district by 15 percentage points.
Still, Bachmann beat Democrat hotel developer Jim Graves in November by fewer than 5,000 votes of more than 355,000 cast, the narrowest margin of any congressional race in the state.
Bachmann must “have recognized that it would be an uphill battle for her going forward,” Graves, who’s running again for the seat, said in a statement released by his campaign.
Bachmann said electoral concerns weren’t a factor.
“My decision was not in any way influenced by any concerns about my being re-elected to Congress,” she said.
Bachmann began her political life as a Democrat. She met her husband, Marcus, while they were working on the 1976 Democratic presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter. She said she became a Republican after reading the Gore Vidal novel “Burr,” which she said mocked the nation’s founding fathers.
In the House, she organized the Tea Party Caucus shortly before the 2010 elections. After Tea Party-fueled gains in that election helped give Republicans control of the House, Bachmann tried to join the new House Republican leadership. She withdrew from consideration for the fourth-ranking spot of conference chairman after drawing little support.
Bachmann led Tea Party activists pressing for a significant reduction in federal spending. While that push helped Republicans win House control in 2010, the movement suffered setbacks in its relations with leadership and in public opinion.
According to a January NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 47 percent of Americans said they have a negative view of the Tea Party. That compares with 49 percent who view the Republican Party unfavorably and 38 percent who have a negative view of the Democratic Party.
Bachmann opposed raising the federal debt limit in 2011 and said it would take what amounted to inconceivable Democratic concessions -- including a full repeal of Obama’s 2010 health-care overhaul -- to get her to reconsider.
Three Tea Party-supported House members were removed from the Budget and Financial Services committees in December after they opposed Boehner on spending and budget issues.
Bachmann’s absence probably won’t affect the future of the Tea Party movement, which has developed independently of the congresswoman since 2010, said Christina Botteri, a founding member of the National Tea Party Federation, a coalition of local and regional Tea Party groups.
“The most authentic Tea Party official right now in Washington is Ted Cruz,” who is also emerging as a leading critic of a bipartisan immigration bill headed for the Senate floor next month, said Botteri.
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